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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At The Brink; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 [2]

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


When Robert McNamara moved from president of Ford Motor Company to secretary of defense in 1961, he brought his very active management control and systems-planning philosophy to the Kennedy administration. In his interview conducted for War and Peace in the Nuclear, McNamara recalls how he rejected the doctrine of "massive retaliation" in favor of "flexible response" in order to raise the nuclear threshold and increase the United States' ability to wage limited nuclear and non-nuclear warfare. He outlines the exhaustive review and overhaul of programs he and his analysts conducted early in the Kennedy administration. He rejected not only massive retaliation but also SIOP-62, the blueprint for the use of nuclear weapons in the event of war; consistent overestimates of Soviet nuclear and conventional capabilities; and the very concept of first-strike force. Initially, McNamara embraced a city-avoidance policy and missile programs that would create a menu of alternate strategies to avoid all-out nuclear war. Realizing the infeasibility of limited nuclear war, he turned to the idea of "assured destruction" and focused on building a deterrent around survivable second-strike weapons that could inflict unacceptable damage on the aggressor. By the time he left the Defense Department in 1968 to become president of the World Bank, McNamara had spearheaded significant shifts in both military policy and the structure of U.S. strategic nuclear forces--a structure that remains largely in place today.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
At The Brink
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Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 [2]

Series Description

The first atomic explosion in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, changed the world forever. This series chronicles these changes and the history of a new era. It traces the development of nuclear weapons, the evolution of nuclear strategy, and the politics of a world with the power to destroy itself.

In thirteen one-hour programs that combine historic footage and recent interviews with key American, Soviet, and European participants, the nuclear age unfolds: the origin and evolution of nuclear weapons; the people of the past who have shaped the events of the present; the ideas and issues that political leaders, scientists, and the public at large must confront, and the prospects for the future. Nuclear Age highlights the profound changes in contemporary thinking imposed by the advent of nuclear weapons. Series release date: 1/1989

Program Description

In October 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States are at the brink of nuclear war, the 13 most harrowing days in the nuclear age.

“I remember leaving the White House at the end of that Saturday and thinking that might well be the last sunset I ever saw,” recalls former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara of Black Saturday, the day the Cuban missile crisis pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war. Aleksandr Alexseev, Soviet ambassador to Cuba at the time, recalled, “We and the Cubans decided that, in order to avoid a United States invasion, we should supply Cuba with missiles.” The US effort to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs was an expression of President Kennedy’s disbelief about the missiles in Cuba while it surprised Soviet leader Khrushchev according to his speechwriter,Feodor Burlatsky. Major General William Fairborne, speaks about how “We loaded whole blood and a hundred coffins onto the carrier Iwo Jima.” Looking back on those 13 days, former Secretary of State Dean Rusk reflects, “...we’ve got to find some way to inhabit this speck of dust in the universe at the same time.”



Asset Type

Raw video

Media Type


United States. Dept. of Defense
Massive retaliation (Nuclear strategy)
Single Integrated Operational Plan
Flexible response (Nuclear strategy)
Warfare, Conventional
Wilson, Harold, 1916-1995
Minuteman (Missile)
Eisenhower, Dwight D. (Dwight David), 1890-1969
Nuclear warfare
Nitze, Paul H.
Deterrence (Strategy)
United States. Central Intelligence Agency
Gaulle, Charles de, 1890-1970
Nuclear arms control
Kaysen, Carl
Warsaw Treaty Organization
Mutual assured destruction
Polaris (Missile)
United States
First strike (Nuclear strategy)
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
Alsop, Stewart
Antimissile missiles
Brown, Harold, 1927-
United States. Air Force. Strategic Air Command
Kosygin, Aleksey Nikolayevich, 1904-1980
Soviet Union
Nuclear weapons
LeMay, Curtis E.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Johnson, Lyndon B. (Lyndon Baines), 1908-1973
Washington, DC
War and Conflict
Global Affairs
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009 (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At The Brink; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 [2],” 03/28/1986, WGBH Media Library & Archives, accessed January 20, 2019, http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_82317190244B46168DFDFB0314E8E7B8.
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At The Brink; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 [2].” 03/28/1986. WGBH Media Library & Archives. Web. January 20, 2019. <http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_82317190244B46168DFDFB0314E8E7B8>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At The Brink; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 [2]. Boston, MA: WGBH Media Library & Archives. Retrieved from http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_82317190244B46168DFDFB0314E8E7B8
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